Baseball reunion rekindles connection with Gamecock pros

nwhite@thestate.comJanuary 30, 2014 

Ray Tanner wants to make sure former South Carolina athletes know they always have a home in Columbia.

The USC athletics department will host a luncheon at Carolina Stadium on Friday for its former baseball players now competing in the professional ranks before they head to their spring training camps next month.

This event, which follows a pair of football luncheons held last year for former players as well as a recent basketball legends weekend, continues an outreach effort by Tanner, who took over as the athletics director in 2012.

“It’s a big deal to me,” said Tanner, who coached the baseball team from 1997-2012, when the Gamecocks went to six College World Series and won two national championships.

“Student-athletes play here and dedicate themselves for four years or so before life takes them in different directions. But it’s always their school. When you’re located in different parts of the country, it’s not easy to get back here all the time. But it’s important that they feel strongly about their school and know that they’re going to be embraced.”

The school has invited 27 former baseball players still competing in major or minor league baseball, and 15 are expected to attend the luncheon, which is not open to the public. Tanner credited Clyde Wrenn, a special assistant in the Gamecock Club development office, with putting the event together, as he did last year with the football luncheons.

“He has a unique ability to connect with our former student-athletes,” Tanner said.

The returnees include Justin Smoak, Jackie Bradley and Michael Roth, who all spent time in the major leagues last season, as well as a who’s who group of players from the 2010 and 2011 title teams.

USC coach Chad Holbrook, who served as an assistant for four seasons before taking over as head coach, looks forward to getting together with the players.

“Those kids are awfully special to the program in many different ways. To keep them connected is important,” Holbrook said. “You want them to always feel a part of the Gamecock family. It’s just a great day to sit down and talk about what we experienced together and, hopefully, what South Carolina baseball is trying to do going forward.”

Holbrook likes to point to the success of former players when he’s recruiting.

“The better they do and the farther they go in professional baseball, it certainly helps us recruit,” Holbrook said. “They’re also very influential members in their communities and their hometowns. They’re a big asset for us.”

Tanner said he lives vicariously through his former players. He has already a circled a date on the calendar when the Yankees featuring Brian Roberts will face the Red Sox with Bradley.

As much as anything, he enjoys the relationships with former players that extend far past life on a baseball field.

“It’s neat to be able to coach them when they’re undergrads, and after they’re gone, you get a chance to have very deep conversations with them that you’re not always able to have when they’re playing for you,” Tanner said. “I love engaging with them, and it’s not just about baseball. It’s about what’s going on in their lives and what’s ahead of them.”

The memories remain strong, however, about what happened at Sarge Frye Field and Carolina Stadium. USC’s success nationally is a product of all the players who came together to get the job done over the years.

“It’s awfully rewarding for us,” Holbrook said. “There’s something unique about the South Carolina baseball bond that all former players have, not only the current professional players but also the former professional players and the former players who didn’t make it in professional baseball. This (event) is just a win on all fronts. I’m looking forward to Friday, that’s for sure.”

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